This is the first of three emails that follow on from last week’s Introduction to Growth Hacker Marketing and dive deeper into growth hacking, the first step of which is Product Market Fit (PMF). I firmly believe that society rewards you for providing the goods or services it wants, and not to be confused with things it needs. A subtle but significant difference when it comes to PMF.

The marketing world is littered with products that have been forced onto the market but no one wanted. The Ford Edsel was probably the first, and most often quoted, to not find a market along with the more recent New Coke and the oft maligned double act of Pets.com and Webvan.

Just because somebody invents something that doesn’t mean it deserves a place in the market. From the development point of view locking down a product at launch is counterintuitive to the way growth hacker marketing works. To maintain success today the product, and product developer, must be prepared to evolve as feedback and information about its acceptability to the audience is gathered.

Airbnb started as an air bed and breakfast service in people’s apartments, aimed at capitalising on the high cost of hotel rooms during major conferences. It’s rise has been well documented, suffice to say there were many iterations of Airbnb before it became the product we know today. We should continue to ask fundamental questions analysing product fit and not be afraid to go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately in many companies it is rarely common practice to ask the most basic questions let alone make subsequent changes to the product.

Disciples of Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, know well the minimum viable product approach where the product evolves through a series of steps based on feedback from the customer. The product is then deemed ready for launch but is not yet fully baked out as iteration continues once real paying customers begin using the product and of course adding their feedback both formal and informal (e.g. social media). Traditionally the iterative process has been the preserve of engineering and product development. However its adoption by marketing will greatly improve the chances for success at launch. Real-time feedback used to develop the product will also drive and direct marketing.

Real-time feedback must be the core focus for everybody involved in taking a product to market. There are many tools available now which can provide a unique insight in real time to understand how customers are using the product. Click here to review The 30 Best Paid For and Free Internet Marketing Tools.

There is a fine line between really understanding what your PMF looks like and crowdsourcing your marketing. Often the two are confused in the sense that people believe that a few online surveys will do the trick.

This is where product development becomes a two-way street. Often engineers who have coding ability, and access, will shape a product based on their idea of what the customer wants or, as the early iterations of Android and Windows showed, what they themselves wanted. Even at this early stage the marketer should be working alongside the engineer and using their first hand knowledge of the market to help shape the product alongside technical considerations. This is different from user testing which essentially is about the functionality of the online experience. Bringing the marketer in at this stage is usually pointless as it’s essentially a ‘polish and round off any sharp edges’ exercise.

The biggest barriers to operating with the PMF top of mind are often both organisational and cultural. Most companies follow a linear roll out of product development passing from engineering, through to project management and marketing, and then onto consumer marketing. Nowadays successful products are diverging from this traditional approach. Companies are far better off creating small and discrete teams with the scope and permission to create products. While it may be a cross functional team the product should not follow the traditional method where meetings to get buy-in can take days or weeks to schedule, let alone discuss and agree on a mandate for change.

Culturally it is challenging for organisations to ask the right questions yet continual questioning of the product assumptions is a vital step to reaching PMF. It takes brains and guts to get this right. The wrong questions can be just as damaging and distracting as not having asked them at all. Without organisational permission to confidently ask questions and challenge whether the product is on the correct path, people will most often follow the path of least resistance which can guarantee product failure. Sadly, in most instances, the hippo principal rules (highest paid person’s opinion) and issues of self preservation and internal politics tend to rule the day. That’s why a start-up will trump a large company any day of the week in the same market and why start-ups create new markets so effectively – because they asked a different question.

Further evidence of this is the way Tesla have created a completely new way of powering, building and marketing cars. SpaceX launches rockets into space and recovers them at a fraction of the cost of the incumbents. Critically both companies set up a small, agile product development process, preferring not to employ industry veterans with their ingrained practices, honed by years of bureaucracy, stratospheric costs and glacial progress.

It’s not about being first to market any more it’s being first to market with a product that fits – collect the data and have faith in the evidence if it clearly supports a rethink or change in direction.

Modern marketers do not need to guess any more. They need to interpret the right data at the right time and make brave decisions as a result.